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Auto Trivia: Cadillac a real self-starter

Published March 22, 2013

Earlier this year, Cadillac announced its first electric-powered model, the upcoming ELR. It’s quite a twist, given that the company was primarily responsible for the demise of electric cars in the first place.

Early cars used gasoline, electricity, or steam, each with its pros and cons. Gasoline engines had a shorter start-up time than steam, and a much longer range than electricity, but they had to be manually cranked to start them. This could be difficult and dangerous, especially if the engine backfired and the heavy crank started spinning.

Henry Leland, a former gunsmith, founded Cadillac in 1902, and stayed on to run the company after he sold it to General Motors in 1909. He was good friends with Byron Carter, who developed a short-lived brand called the Cartercar.

In 1910, Carter stopped to help a woman whose car had stalled — coincidentally, a Cadillac. The crank spun and hit Carter in the face, and he later died of his injuries. Grief-stricken, Leland vowed that while many others had tried and failed to produce a self-starter, Cadillac would succeed.

Charles Kettering gets the credit. He was an engineer who, while working at National Cash Register, had invented an electric machine to replace the hand-cranked register. He then switched to cars, designing a revolutionary auto ignition system that was loosely based on the cash register’s electric motor. He supplied this to Cadillac through his company Delco (for his Ohio-based Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company), which GM would buy in 1916. At Leland’s request, he began working on a self-starter in 1910.

The new starter debuted on the 1912 Cadillac and was an instant success. By the end of the decade, virtually every American car had a self-starter, even the Ford Model T, where it was reluctantly added because Henry Ford thought it was “unmanly” to start a car without using a crank. Sales of gasoline cars soared, and the 1924 edition of the New York Auto Show was the first without a single electric or steam-powered car on display.

Mexico’s oil monopoly

Speaking of gasoline, commercial oil production in the Middle East effectively began on May 26, 1908, when a deposit was discovered at Masjed Soleyman in Iran. England needed oil for its ships, and so three years later, a pipeline was delivering the crude to a new refinery. By the 1930s, the deposit was determined to be the largest in the world.

Oil was first found in Kuwait on Feb. 23, 1938, kick-starting that country’s petroleum industry. A little more than two decades later, OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, would be created in 1960 by founding members Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Mexico was also a top global producer, but most of its production was controlled by foreign companies, including American ones. These paid low wages to Mexican workers, and since there wasn’t a large domestic demand, most of the oil and its profits were exported. In 1917, the government decided that Mexico’s citizens owned the country’s natural resources, making for strained relations with the United States until the two governments signed a 1928 agreement that let U.S. companies extract oil if they had worked the area prior to 1917.

Oil workers went on strike in 1937, and on March 18, 1938, Mexican president Lazaro Cardenas expropriated the assets of the foreign companies. Mexico’s oil industry became a state-owned monopoly where foreign companies were not welcome.

Needless to say, the Americans were not impressed. The oil companies refused to buy Mexican oil, which was then primarily exported to Germany. This created a sticky situation as war began: the U.S. government wanted compensation paid to the companies for what they’d lost in expropriation, but worried that if it pushed too hard, Mexico might take Germany’s side.

In 1942, after much diplomatic wrangling, an agreement resulted in Mexico paying $29 million in compensation — but despite pressure from the U.S. oil companies, the state-run monopoly remained in place.

wheels@thestar.ca

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